Month: June 2012

I am the Invisible Goddess

Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.  ~Erica Jong

Growing up female in a Hindu household where family dinnertime debates formed the highlight of the day has rendered me incapable of either completely standing up for myself or completely submitting to the comfort of cultural norms. It is a disquieting position to be in. With every debate around the dining table I got to rail against the injustice of a culture that put women in a subservient position. With every ritual performed in the house – religious or otherwise – I got to be symbolically dismissed and silenced. At least that was the dichotomy I saw at the time. But it went deeper than that. Even within each sphere of activity the same dichotomy iterated itself. In the discursive context of the dinnertime debate, my position that in religious texts only men were addressed as direct interlocutors was countered with the fact that the female energy was worshipped in the same texts. In the ritualised context of worship, the goddess was indeed often the central object. But the women and girls scurried around fetching and carrying the items needed for the ritual while the man sat and conducted the rites. Even if I happened to win the argument at the dinner table, once it was over, it was the women who cleared the table and did the dishes. Frustration turned into rage, and rage turned inexplicably into temporary compliance. It was too hard to fight against something which was so big, so entrenched.

But there is a time for everything, and rage can only be suppressed for so long when the root cause remains. It can be perhaps tempered by compassion and wisdom, as maturity sets in. That I have two sons and no daughters might explain how the rage has stayed in check for so long on a personal level. The religion, after all, speaks to my children, and draws them into it. They have no conflict with it and because of that, my protective instincts have remained dormant longer than they would have if I’d had daughters to defend against the hypocrisy of organised religion. Lately, however, I have been feeling that old sense of disquiet. I am not sure if it has something to do with the ageing process – I feel a sense of responsibility towards a wider group of people (who, admittedly, may want nothing to do with me or my point of view!). Or maybe it is much more selfish in motivation. Perhaps I just want to win that argument! Then again, it could be that as I get older, I feel the need for some sort of spiritual path but see only a gendered void.

Of all religions, Hinduism seems most capable of accommodating multiple perspectives. By this I do not mean to put down any other faith. If monotheism is what one believes in, then a monotheistic religion is the perfect vehicle in which to develop the soul. The flexibility of Hinduism is something that is often held up as evidence that it allows breadth and depth of individual interpretation. I would argue that it is also what makes it easy for otherwise intelligent people to ignore the asymmetries at the embodied level. I also argue that most thinking women who recognise this and yet comply with the rituals on the basis of the flexibility that the larger paradigm offers are able to do so only because they ignore the discrimination at the embodied level and raise their cognition to a much more abstract level than any man has ever had to do. Again, this potentially powerful act has been counter-claimed, and built into the argument that women are in some symbolic way superior, and therefore their submission empowers their men.

Why does this matter? After all, most women and the men who love and respect them come to some sort of personal bargain with religious texts and practices. They choose to focus on elements they can build into their lives without disturbing their intellectual conscience too much and to ignore the inconvenient ones that make them feel like they are betraying their modern consciousness. I feel that this does matter because it is in some way tied up with the horrifying facts in this article that appeared in the New York Times on the 12th of June, 2012. India may be advancing, the article tells us, but many Indian women are still stuck in the dark ages. Despite the fact that they are supposed to be akin to the Goddess of Wealth, they are subject to gender-related crimes that seem completely out of place in a time of modernity. The belief about their link to divinity is conveniently abandoned in their embodied realities.

What is the link between the whiny middle class woman who seems to be making a mountain out of a molehill and the rural Indian girl who is doused in kerosene and set aflame? It is that they are both part of a culture in which their embodied divinity is systemically denied. Invisible goddesses both, they differ in the circumstances of their birth. I want to argue that this key difference makes it the responsibility of every woman who has the ability to do so to question her invisibility out loud. When we who are educated make compromises in our heads, we make it easier for our sisters to be further marginalised. It is unconscionable that we live in comfort while they burn.

When the Goddess is worshipped, we take no pride in that because it is not we who are being worshipped, nor is it even our femininity. Our femininity has been taken, abstractualised, invested in an idealised concept, and thus, by being worshipped,  has legitimised our erasure.

I am the goddess you worship. But in your worship I am invisible.

In Search of Lands End

This sounds like a post about some kind of epic journey. In some ways it was. I was in Phoenix recently for a conference and was determined to take some time off to search for my favourite brand of clothes. I’ve been a big fan of Lands End clothes for a long time. When I was a plus size, I despaired of ever finding clothes to fit me. I live in Singapore, where people look like walking match sticks and clothes in stores are the size of postage stamps. No one has hips or thighs. It’s very demoralising to shop here. 

Lands End popped up on my browser during a desperate online search. I was like a kid in a candy store – gripping my credit card in my sweaty hand as I chose from the widest variety of clothes I had ever been able to choose from. And I didn’t have to look like Bloody Mary in South Pacific anymore (not that she isn’t perfectly lovely). It wasn’t just that the clothes fit. The quality was amazing. Fabrics and stitching were strong, designs were flattering, and colours were vibrant. 

I’ve lost the weight and can technically buy clothes in my beloved country now. But I am addicted to the Lands End look. At the risk of sounding all whiny, I still don’t think Singapore stores want people like me to shop there. Either you have to dress like an Aunty in loose floral tops and baggy pants, or like a wannabe teenager in skinny jeans and flippy skirts. There seems to be no in-between that is classy, age-appropriate, functional, dignified AND affordable. Also, I’m not a plus size anymore, but no amount of weight loss will change my pear shaped figure. My husband says it’s sexy. I’m glad he likes it, but I’d really rather be able to shop! 

Hence my continuing romance with Lands End. 

The only problem is that I worry about buying trousers and shoes (since I’m putting it all out here anyway I’ll tell you that I have size 11 feet while the average size here is about 5 or 6) without trying them on first. Apparently Sears stores carry Lands End products. So I had the brilliant idea of visiting one while I was in Phoenix just to try on the trousers and shoes. Once I figured out what my size was I should be able to order online worry-free. Sounds like a brilliant idea, no? 

No.

Because this is what actually happened:

The concierge at the hotel where I was staying said that there was a Sears store at a place called Montebello. So I marched to the train station, bought a ticket and got on the train. This part was pretty painless. The shopping area turned out to be huge and sprawling. There was Walmart…Target…JC Penney’s and a whole bunch of other stores. But no Sears. A sweet young cashier at one store cheerfully told me how to get to the Metrocenter Mall where there was a Sears store. 2 buses, she chirped. Thank you, I said, and marched to the bus stop in the blazing heat. You’d think that in that sort of climate they would make the bus shelters a little more friendly for people who needed to escape the heat. Wherever I stood some part of me burned in the sun. I settled for roasted feet. Don’t judge me. 

At the bus stop, I chatted with a guy named Rico, who told me his whole life story even though I didn’t ask. And then told me that since it was Memorial Day, the buses would only come every hour on the hour. Which meant that it would take me more than an hour to reach the mall since I had to change buses. I went back to the shopping area, because Rico said that the folks in Target would help me call for a cab. Which they did. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I had to ask the operator to speak slowly when she was telling me about where the cab would pick me up because I just couldn’t figure out her accent. This despite years of watching American TV programs! 

The cab driver was a delightful young lady named Deborah, who, when I told her how friendly I thought people in Phoenix were, warned me that they were also crazy, and that I should be careful about whom I spoke to on public transport especially, since most regular people owned cars and only homeless people tended to use the trains and buses. I was a little worried as we pulled up in front of the entrance to the Sears store that I might not be able to find my way back, and Deborah very kindly said she would come back after two hours to pick me up. I didn’t know how far I could trust her, so I was mentally prepared to make other arrangements when I was done. It turned out that she DID come back to get me. And I’m glad she did because I needed to see a friendly face after my huge disappointment. 

That particular Sears store did NOT carry Lands End clothes anymore, and they were unsure whether any other outlets did. I had run out of time because I had to fly home the next morning, and it was way too expensive to take a cab anywhere else. In any case, the fight had gone out of me. 

I will take up the search again some other time. But I want to end on a high note: I may not have found Lands End this time, but I did meet some interesting people!